The FAA wants to avoid delays

Gary Mosley needed to get to Charlottesville, Va., for the Nov. 23 football game between the universities of Virginia and Maryland so he could do audio work for ESPN.

Mosley, a 44-year-old freelance technician, left Cincinnati at 11:20 p.m., two days before the match. The flight he boarded was sent back to Cincinnati — after circling Charlottesville for 30 minutes — because of intense fog. Twelve hours later, he made it to the small college city.

Stories like this are nothing new, and the Federal Aviation Administration has a major effort under way to transform the nation's airspace system to get Mosley and other passengers to their destinations more safely and efficiently, even in bad weather.

Already, milestones have been reached and innovative technologies installed. But significant challenges remain. The agency faces a serious workforce shortage. Its budget is tied up in Congress. And airlines, buckling under record losses, have little incentive to equip planes with emerging tools.

Altogether, that means traveling for Mosley and other flyers could look the same for a while longer.

Given the obstacles and the drop in air traffic since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration might justify scaling back the FAA's plans, waiting until the resources and the demand return. That, however, would be shortsighted, public- and private-sector officials say.

With some airports logging pre-Sept. 11 numbers and a full rebound expected, now is the time for the aviation community to coalesce, observers said. A presidential commission sees a lack of upgrades as further damaging the industry and is calling on the administration and lawmakers to ensure progress continues by making it a national priority. Although this recommendation has received mixed reviews, all parties agree: Modernization is a must.

"The economy is going to come back," said Claire Robinson, acting deputy director of the FAA's operational evolution staff. "We need to have the aviation infrastructure and tools in place to facilitate that recovery, not constrain it."

Vendors shared that view. "You keep the focus on modernization because you know we will recover," said Quentin Brasie, president of ACI Aviation Consulting. "Right now it's a very distant backseat. The news of the day is [about] layoffs, flight schedule reductions and [so on]. But I think [that] will shift."

No one is saying that the FAA has an easy path ahead of it — particularly with post-Sept. 11 security concerns in mind — just that the agency must stay the course.

A Plan in Hand

The FAA has transformation programs spread throughout its organization, but the bulk fall into two areas: the National Airspace System (NAS) Modernization and the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP).

NAS Modernization aims to enhance safety and improve security by upgrading systems' hardware and software.

OEP features a mix of information technology and other initiatives, such as operational procedure changes, to expand capacity to meet passenger needs by 2010.

"It's a major upgrade of systems across the board," said Bill Voss, director of the FAA's terminal business services in air traffic services.

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), put it this way: "Modernizing the air traffic control system is like changing the tires on a car going 60 miles per hour without the passengers knowing we're doing it."

The FAA has taken some significant hits on the road to automation. In 1994, it divided an ambitious program to overhaul systems throughout all air traffic control centers into smaller projects, after spending six years and $1.5 billion.

Yet the agency kept at it and, with a different strategy put in place during the late 1990s, modernization got moving, sources said.

Former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey's "mantra — build a little, test a little, deploy a little — went to delivering incremental change," Carr said. The agency "probably fielded more new technology in the past five years than in the previous 10 to 15. That was the turning point."

During Garvey's five-year term, the FAA installed more than 7,100 systems and pieces of equipment and made 10,000-plus hardware and software upgrades, she told lawmakers in July.

Successes included outfitting all 21 air traffic control centers with new computers and displays, and six centers with the user request evaluation tool, which analyzes flight paths to check for potential conflicts up to 20 minutes into the future.

Now that the FAA has entered the post-Garvey era — Marion Blakey took over the top post in September — the jury is out on what modernization will look like, but insiders are anxious to see the momentum maintained. Blakey has publicly stated her support for the effort.

"The new air traffic management and navigation systems on the immediate horizon hold great potential for providing significant gains in efficiency and safety," she said in a speech delivered Nov. 18 to the International Civil Aviation Organization's council in Montreal. "We need to work hard to realize that potential as quickly as possible."

The day before, the agency had switched on the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) at Philadelphia International Airport.

STARS, which presents radar and flight plan data on high-resolution color displays that show detailed weather information, is one of the core initiatives slated to make transformation a reality in the next five years. The controversial system is 80 percent over budget, costing the FAA about $10 million per month, according to an inspector general report released in June.

While the FAA's Voss and NATCA's Carr deemed the Philadelphia project a victory, others remain less enthused about STARS but hopeful that Blakey will make a difference.

"I think we need to define what success is," said Michael Fanfalone, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists. "I've been encouraged working with the new administrator, [who] takes a no-nonsense business approach."

That approach has been embraced in the FAA's modernization ranks as well. With Philadelphia and other milestones under its wing, the agency must do a better job looking for missed opportunities and near-term tactical investments, Voss said.

Turbulence Ahead

Before it can fully move to a business model, however, there are obstacles to overcome.

Most likely, the FAA will need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers in the next decade to offset the anticipated attrition of experienced employees and to address increased traffic demands, said General Accounting Office officials in a June 14 report.

"This system cannot operate the current throughput with less controllers," Carr said.

The FAA currently employs about 24,000 controllers, who rely on various systems to manage traffic and provide information to pilots in the air and on the ground. Many of the controllers whom the agency hired to replace thousands who were fired following a strike in 1981 are, or soon will be, eligible for retirement. The list of potential departees includes frontline supervisors and controllers at some of the nation's busiest air traffic control facilities.

"They're tired," Carr said. "They're ready to go."

The results of a GAO survey indicate that about 5,000 controllers could leave in the next five years — more than twice the number who have left in the past five.

Finding the right replacements poses the biggest obstacle, Brasie said.

The FAA wants to hire about 850 air traffic controllers in fiscal 2003, Bill Peacock, the agency's director of air traffic, said last month at the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) Inc.'s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

The FAA plans to launch a 10-year strategy to assemble a pool of controllers once it gets funding; like most federal entities, the Transportation Department, the FAA's parent organization, is operating under a continuing resolution through at least Jan. 11, 2003, Peacock said.

The jobs could also be outsourced — a possibility that upsets union officials.

Controllers, however, are just part of the problem. "Our workforce is aging, not only our in-house talent, but also our manufacturers," the FAA's Robinson said. "We as a community need to light a fire under our young people.

"We're embarking on recognition and outreach," she said.

Along with recruiting, FAA officials have to factor in instruction, Peacock said. "You need a high percentage of equipage and trained crews," he said.

Putting the proper equipment on planes, alone, can make or break a program.

Consider Required Navigation Performance (RNP), a major piece of the agency's transformation effort. RNP allows pilots to navigate aircraft to any point in the world using on-board equipment instead of relying entirely on ground-based systems. Standards are expected in June 2003, Robinson said.

We have "to start taking a look at what that means," she said. "That is one of our clear challenges, how we can [encourage] our carriers to equip."

Right now, equipping planes is voluntary, posing a slew of potential interoperability problems. The FAA hopes the benefits to using new tools will prompt airlines to come on board.

"Theoretically, if you buy equipment that's going to save you 10 percent in fuel costs, that's good," said Bill Dane, senior aviation analyst at Forecast International Inc. But it's like television ads that declare, " 'You can't afford not to buy this.' Well, yeah, you can."

Some stakeholders think the federal government should foot the bill. "It may be cheaper in the long run to equip these planes through a government subsidy," said Dennis Dolan, vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, at the ATCA convention.

FAA officials have estimated the equipage cost of the OEP program to the community at about $11 billion.

"It's a very thorny issue," Carr said. "Do you mandate that type of equipment and who's going to pay for it?

"It wasn't a dilemma in 2001," he said. "Everyone started to coalesce. It's tough to shepherd the conversation back. It's just a difficult time for this industry, everyone is in survival, not strategic, mode."

Seeking a New Tack

The debate over equipage and so many other issues boils down to money, and the continuing resolution leaves FAA officials with very little wiggle room.

"We have a general air of uncertainty and [are] more cautious," Voss said.

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $14 billion for the agency — a 1.6 percent decrease from 2002 — for fiscal 2003.

"The nation as a whole has to make a commitment and [we] have to make it with money," Carr said. "We need some executive-level leadership to create a 21st century transportation [system]. You can't leave modernization to the whim of appropriations."

The tanking airline industry and poor economy further complicate matters. "Right now, there's more questions than answers," Dane said. "The big airlines are hurting really badly."

And although analysts agree that the industry is cyclical and will eventually make a comeback, there's still the problem of inadequate spending on the federal level, they say.

"I don't think the money has been funded yet to build a system that will handle the traffic," Brasie said. "There's going to have to be an enormous amount of money infused into that area of the FAA."

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry backed full funding for the agency's OEP, but said success is contingent on a larger initiative.

"It's time for the federal government to step up to this and create a national plan," said John Douglass, a commission member. "They have a plan — it's called the OEP — but it doesn't go far enough. The technology needed resides largely outside of the Transportation Department.

"In democracies, these kind of things tend to sit on the backburner until the amount of personal outrage builds up and lawmakers do something about it. People are reaching a kind of fed-up stage here," said Douglass, president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. "People want to know it's going to be OK, and we have the technology to make it more OK."

Current leadership and responsibility are dispersed among many federal, state and local organizations, the commission said in the executive summary to its 300-page final report, which was released Nov. 18.

Agencies with aviation projects under way — the FAA, NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Defense Department and others — must work together to deploy a new, highly automated air traffic management system, according to the commission.

President Bush signed legislation forming the bipartisan commission more than a year ago and work began in November 2001. Some observers were skeptical of its findings.

"That stuff has been tried before," Ray Bjorklund, vice president of market intelligence and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources Inc., said of the recommendation to forge a national aerospace policy.

"That report is a starting point, but without executive leadership, it's a paperweight," Carr said.

The FAA, meanwhile, is continuing its efforts. "We have stayed the course, we are full steam ahead on our major technology investments programs," Robinson said.

With the integrated weather terminal system, the agency can make forecasts up to 60 minutes into the future, allowing pilots to fly through and around storms more confidently. And the frequency of delays that frustrated travelers during summer 2000 has been reduced, she said.

A "good part of STARS [will be] in place nationwide in the next five years," Voss said. "My vision is that we would be out of the painful growing stage and beginning to reap benefits."

Although great strides have been made in the past 14 months, some worry that more is needed — and soon. Already, demand at Philadelphia International Airport has returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels and Chicago O'Hare International Airport has exceeded them, he said.

"The aftermath of that tragedy combined with the economic recession created a window of opportunity," Carr said. "The window is closing, and I'm afraid we haven't done enough."

***

Demand is on the rise

Following a significant dip after Sept. 11, 2001, air travel is picking up, although not to 2000 levels, according to the Air Transport Association.

ATA measures travel by revenue passenger miles, in which one RPM equals one fare-paying passenger transported one mile. Here's a look at October air travel during the past three years:

October 2002: 49,188,255 RPMs

October 2001: 41,107,872 RPMs

October 2000: 54,775,339 RPMs

Source: ATA, which represents leading U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways.

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